The Memory Man

As one of my hats is as a speaker, and another is as a trainer of speakers, I thought this month I’d share some tips on how to remember what to say when you’re on stage. It’s a question I often get asked, as so many nervous presenters are worried about being parted from their notes and “going blank” when confronted with an audience. 

Well, it’s worth remembering that the fear is natural, and actually having a script won’t help. Imagine holding a newspaper (The Times, not The Sun) and reading the typeface while standing up in front of a large audience. The text will be almost illegible and the truth is notes in that situation are little more than an emotional crutch. 

Few presenters are trained actors, so don’t even think about trying to memorise speeches. That’s a very different skillset. However, the correct approach also equates to hard work. If it’s your first time, or a new speech, it can be worthwhile writing it out in full. Then practise it, edit it, get feedback, practise again, and then you’re ready. 

Oh, and a word about practising, your rehearsal should be done with an audience, find a volunteer, and make them give you genuinely honest feedback. And rehearse with your Powerpoint or AV, so you can work out how long you need to keep the slides in place. And make sure you are realistic with your timings as you can afford to be slightly under time, because everyone else will be over. But don’t feel the need to extend your presentation just because you’re five minutes under your allotted time. 

Now, if you have the correct set-up you can actually do away with any support notes. That’s because popular presentation packages such as PowerPoint offer an option called “Presenter View”. This allows you to see on your computer your current slide, plus the next three, along with any supporting notes that you’ve written as an aide memoire. However, your audience will only see the main slide. Apart from giving you control and prompting you, as required, it also prevents that irritating body language situation where speakers turn their back on the audience to see their own slides. 

Of course the easiest way of avoiding notes is to have a presentation that flows so that the images that appear remind you of the story you’re telling. I’m sure you don’t need reminding that text on slides should be kept to a minimum, and are there as emphasis. Pictures and videos are far more effective visual support and, used effectively, will also allow you the opportunity to gather your thoughts while the audience are transfixed with the big screen. 

But let’s also be clear that there is nothing wrong with using notes. Business guru Tom Peters strides the world’s stages berating businesses, and continues to rely on a battered set of written notes. But forget those grotty little index cards; go for A5 sheets with font that’s at least 16pt, so you can glance at key words with ease. 

And as you gain in confidence, and learn how to plan the presentation set-up to your advantage, you can put support notes in a couple of places; on the lecturn, but also on the table with your water, so you feel confident walking about. 

And as more and more presentations are becoming active giving control to the audience, perhaps with interactive voting technology rather than simply passive “chalk and talk” sessions, there’s also the need to move away from a script – because you have no idea how the audience are going to behave. 

Of course, all these things take practice, but most presenters will tell you that they develop “muscle memory” in the same way musicians do. And well-structured presentations (and, frankly, why would you give any other kind?) are normally a sequence of cogent arguments, so B should follow A and precede C, otherwise there’s no logic. 

By the way, I often get asked about those “umms” and “errs”, which can drive an audience to violence. The cure is relatively simple; if you’re not speaking, shut your mouth. You don’t hum through a presentation, so clearly this technique works. Don’t open your mouth until your brain is engaged and your thoughts are ready. 

After all that, will your speech be perfect? Hardly. Those little flaws are what will make you unique. But the fact that it flowed, that you’d constructed an interesting story, and delivered it (with great visuals) by engaging the audience, rather than scrabbling with your notes means you can be sure your invitation to return will be in the post. 

Any comments? Email

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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